Hiking The Wonderland Trail… almost

When a hike goes to plan, the sun is shining, birds are singing, and rainbows abound… then you wake up.

Seldom have any of my outdoor excursions ever gone to plan.  More often a myriad of twists enter the game wherein I relearn the virtues of attitude and flexibility.  A positive attitude helps me see that unexpected twists can add to the experience, and flexibility reminds me I still have options. 

Embracing curveballs as part of the adventure is a talent I’ve honed over the years. It helped the mental readjustment after the voluntary shutdown of the A.T. tremendously.  Though it was a difficult call, it was the one I felt was best for me.  Not that there was a hard line here, only a personal decision we each had to make in 2020.  Canceling was mine.

I had an abundance of time after delaying my Appalachian dream, so I applied for a few Wonderland Trail permits. After years of trying I’ve never scored any, so I also applied for Havasu Falls and the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim/ Bright Angel Trail permits.  Should I gain none of the above, I planned on heading wherever whimsy took me. And whimsy, I was to discover, was going to define my hikes this year.

S*t Happens

Life in Wyoming

In April, around the time I would have been starting my thru-hike, I received an email from the Mora Wilderness Reservations at Mt. Rainier.  They had granted me two passes for The Wonderland Trail, with a start date of September 12, 2020.

Fast forward to fall; After leaving our RV in Wyoming, we arrived in the trail town of Packwood, just south of Mt. Rainier.  As I checked into our hotel, I was told we had gotten there exactly one hour after the smoke had moved in.  Fantastic!

The drive into Packwood. The smoke beat us.

California and Oregon had been burning for over a month by then, so we knew there was a possibility of reduced visibility, what we hadn’t counted on was the level of smoke we encountered.  It was two days before our start date, and visibility was around a quarter-mile.  The only thing we could do was cross our fingers, make our food drops, and hope things would improve.

View of Mt. Rainier from the Sunrise trailhead. From this vantage point, it looks tiny. It is not.

The day our hike was to start it was still ridiculously smokey, so we drove to the Sunrise trailhead to assess.  It was much clearer at elevation, meaning we could see the summit of Rainier and breathe normally.  We took this as a sign from the hiking gods to mean, “Yes, tiny mortals, commence with the frivolities!”  So, with Wonderland passes being the elusive unicorns of the hiking world they are, we commenced post haste.

Arriving at Berkeley Park. – Bit hazy.

Camp #1 was six miles in at Berkeley Park, and upon arrival, our lungs were burning, our eyes were stinging, and our brain synapses smoldering. The smoke had caught up.  Simply rising from a sitting position almost resulted in blacking out from a lack of oxygen.  We would have hiked back out had there been a few more hours of daylight, but the sun had already sunk and the night was full-on.  Neither of us had the energy to waste on a reckless endeavor, and as Rainier lacks empathy for fools, it’s best we stayed put.

The one good thing to come out of a global pandemic while the entire west coast burns to the ground was that we had our Covid masks.  Having a filter to wear while we slept helped revive our addled brains, so by sunrise, we were alert, packed, and ready to leave.  However, we weren’t giving up just yet.

Standing on Highway 90 overlooking Lake Couer d’Alene on the way back to Wyoming. (There is a lake there, I promise.)

We stayed in Tacoma for several days hoping the haze would clear, while somewhere in the universe the hiking gods were having a merry laugh. It wasn’t to be. Not this year, so we notified the Rangers and canceled the rest of our hike.

We started the drive back to Buffalo, Wyoming, dejected and slightly cranky, the smoke trailing us the entire way. Any hopes we had of getting in a hike somewhere between Mt. Rainier and Buffalo were squashed as flat as my tiny, angry heart.  There was much casting of curses and unleashing of profanity on the drive back, but not a single hike.

Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming. There was no escaping the smoke.

PERSPECTIVE

After coming so close, the Wonderland Trail had eluded me again.  Sometimes that’s how adventure shakes out. It happens. Outdoor plans are more akin to guidelines, so flexibility and attitude adjustments are the best options to keep enough sanity to try again.

 It also helps to look at the bigger picture; Some people lost everything in those fires.  All I lost was a month’s pay, and I can apply to hike again next year.  Besides, there are miles of trail that don’t require reservations, passes, or dying of carbon monoxide.  After my Wonderland fail it was time to deploy a bit of the aforementioned whimsy, which is exactly how I found myself in southern Utah for a bit of fun with my sister.

Hiking with Lady in Southern Utah.

Though Utah wasn’t on my radar for 2020, I had a fantastic time rediscovering old hikes, and several new ones with someone I love.  This sister I’ll call “Lady” for privacy’s sake, as it’s incredibly fitting, and Lady is every level of positive fun and spontaneity.  I hadn’t realized it, but she was exactly the hiking partner I needed after a year as dispiriting as this past year has been.

Attitude adjusted.

MOVING ON

RVers and Rednecks make for entertaining neighbors.

I’ve since left Utah and driven our RV southeast for the winter to prepare for my 2021 thru-hike.  Currently, I’m in the wilds of Florida somewhere near Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico. Once I get the rig settled and the weather clears, I’ll be exploring sections of the Florida Trail.  I’m familiar with the terrain and *challenges having lived here for many years, though I spent more time much further south.

I’m discovering North Florida can get downright frigid and wet, and it seems to have more swamp than the areas I lived in.  It’s the perfect place to prepare for the miles of cold and wet I’ll experience in the first months of my Appalachian trek.

After all the hurdles this year has presented, it’ll be great to get out and stroll in the dirt..  sand… water… ?  I’ll no doubt encounter chilly rain, ticks, and soggy gear.  Possibly a few gators.  What more could a girl ask for?

I’ll be back to report on my humid adventures and the characters I encounter.  Should I get chewed on by a gator, I’ll definitely be writing about that. (Photos as survival permits.)

Happy Trails y’all!

*Challenges being bugs, gators, and wet.  I’m also fluent in Redneck.

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Matt : Jan 1st

    It’s a shame you hit the Sunrise trail head when you did. We started at Mowich Lake on 9/10 and might have walked by you in the smoke on our way to White River on the 12th. That was definitely the worst smoke we encountered around Frozen Lake. We considered leaving the trail, but had to get down to White River first. The smoke did not seem so bad once we got there, and we never talked about leaving because of smoke again. The rest of the trip was hazy for sure, but we practically had the trail and all the camps to ourselves. We ended up having a spectacular trip with only a few hours of rain on the last day, which was almost too much good weather luck to expect.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      J.D./ La Loon : Jan 3rd

      I’m happy to hear someone was able to hike. Most of the hikers we encountered were leaving the trail due to the smoke, but it’s great you were able to see the stuff we didn’t! We dropped our food at Mowich on the 11th and ran into a ranger there that suggested we cancel our hike, which wasn’t going to happen before we even tried. We were hiking counterclockwise, and I think the smoke was worse on the west side. One of the biggest reason we left was that my hiking partner has had issues with asthma; trail conditions pared with physical conditions wasn’t a wise decision on our part. Thanks for your comment, it offers a positive view on how the trail is different for everyone. We’ll be trying again!

      Reply

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